An employee at a Publix supermarket in Miami-Dade county was allegedly prohibited from wearing a mask at work. Now his family is suing the company over his death.
The coronavirus had already made its way well into the US by the time Gerardo Gutierrez, 70, asked his employer if he’d be permitted to wear a face mask while he worked. Despite the fact that his deli counter colleague was showing signs of the illness as they worked together on March 27 and 28, Publix told him that masks were not allowed because they may “scare” customers, the family’s lawyer has claimed.
About a month later, Gutierrez died alone in a hospital from complications related to COVID-19. His family was forced to say their goodbyes over a video call.
The co-worker, meanwhile, has recovered, and Publix later reversed course on their maskless rule on April 20, according to Publix’s website. However, a Tampa Bay Times report on April 30 showed the supermarket chain had yet to consistently adopt a mask policy, lagging behind their competitors at the time.
On Monday, the family filed a suit alleging the Florida-based company had acted with negligence. Lawyers for the Gutierrez family say Publix should be held accountable. They’re asking for more than $30,000 in damages.
Gutierrez’s daughter Ariane, 43, called the passing a “devastating loss.” In a statement on their lawyer’s website, she added, “Our family is in shock that Publix would prevent its employees from staying safe. Because of its careless decisions, our father is not here with us today.”
The lawsuit also cites multiple complaints submitted to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the grocer prohibiting masks and gloves earlier this year.
“You have a company like Publix that profited greatly throughout the pandemic on the backs of employees like Gerardo Gutierrez, and you’d imagine the least they could do for those people who showed up at work was to protect their own employees,” said attorney Michael Levine. “And then to learn they wouldn’t let their employees wear masks, because they thought it would scare off their customers. That’s just very troubling.”
Publix could not be reached for comment by multiple news outlets, including The Post.
Gutierrez arrived at work on March 27 and 28 to find his co-worker exhibiting symptoms indicative of COVID-19 illness. The company lifted their ban on some types of face coverings by April 30, after refusing to allow Gutierrez the same, because deli workers were reportedly still prohibited from wearing them, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
On April 2, Gutierrez had been sent home to isolate following his colleague’s positive test results confirming they’d been infected with the coronavirus.
By April 6, Gutierrez had a cough and fever. At the same time, Publix finally announced that all employees could wear surgical or reusable cloth masks.
It was too late for Gutierrez, who passed away on April 28.
Publix isn’t the only retail chain to come under fire as Walmart as well as Tyson Foods face lawsuits by employees over coronavirus deaths. Anticipating more, federal and Florida lawmakers have debated legislations to prevent workers from suing their employers if they contract COVID-19 on the job.
“Ultimately, that’s not going to deter us,” Levine told the Times. “To think they wouldn’t let their employees make their own decisions on wearing [personal protective equipment], Publix made all these statements that they were keeping workers safe but they did otherwise.”
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